Saying good-bye to a great teacher

Mrs. Diana Eckert
Science Teacher at our joint-parish school
Holy Trinity Catholic School

This evening, May 19, 2011, our parish hosted a Memorial Service for Mrs. Diana Eckert who had been a teacher for 25 years in the various schools my parish has sponsored during that time. She started at St. Stephen School, and then she continued at Elizabeth Ann Seton School when St. Stephen School was merged with Our Lady of Assumption School. When Seton School merged with St. Albert School in Fairview Heights, IL she became the science teacher for Holy Trinity Catholic School. She began the present school year in the classroom while undergoing treatment for cancer, but it became evident during the year that she would have to leave the classroom due to her health and treatments. Mrs. Eckert died on May 7 and donated her body to Saint Louis University School of Medicine’s Center for Anatomical Science and Education so that she could continue to teach students, even in death. Many former students, colleagues and parishioners came to the evening service to pay tribute to this marvelous teacher who never really understood how many young people and adults she had influenced. It was a moving service, especially to hear the many tributes given her. Earlier today, we celebrated a Memorial Eucharist with the children and staff at Holy Trinity School, so it’s been an emotional day for me (I presided at another funeral in the morning, too). Diana was a special teacher and someone I was privileged to work with and know. What follows is the text of the homily I gave at the evening prayer memorial service. It is based on Acts of the Apostles 10:34-36, 42-43, Psalm 27:1 and John 17:24-26.

    I first met Diana Eckert 13 years ago when I was the new pastor at St. Stephen and trying to figure out how to be a co-pastor of Elizabeth Ann Seton School with Msgr. James Jansen that our two parishes shared responsibility for. I don’t know if it was during the summer or the first faculty meeting, but I do recall that early on I thought. “Man, this is one intense teacher!” I soon found out that her students felt the same. Students would approach 7th grade with some trepidation knowing they had Mrs. Eckert as their teacher. “She’s tough!” “She’s demanding” “You won’t get away with anything in her class!”

    What I discovered over the course of the next few years is the same thing her students discovered, that Diana considered her students to be something like what Jesus considers us in the words he spoke to us in the Gospel,
“Father, my students are your gift to me. I wish that they see the wonders of the physical world the way I marvel at your creation. I want them to see your glory reflected in everything created since the foundation of the world!”
Msgr. Jansen, Msgr. Flach, Fr. Ray and me, the pastors who signed her contract and observed her love of teaching all agree that she was one of the reasons St. Stephen, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Holy Trinity Catholic Schools have been and are places of academic excellence and places where children are well formed disciples more ready to proclaim the goodness of God to the world. Diana was dedicated to our mission and the various pastors and the sponsoring parishes are so grateful that God lead her to our school.

    Diana knew the creator, the source of the life she studied, through the discipline of science and the gift of faith. For her, there was no conflict between faith and science. The truth was revealed in both the scientific method and the revelation of faith’s textbook; the scriptures and the church. She’d often say to me that I needed to come visit her classroom more so that the children would see how science and religion are not in competition but complement each other. She seemed to be able to share that truth pretty well on her own.

    Tonight we need to rely on her approach to truth to help us in our grief and not let sadness overtake us or the absence of Diana.

    She was very matter of fact about death with her students. That got her in trouble with parents at least once that I recall since I’ve been at St. Stephen. One time she apparently told her students that when she died, she wanted a cat and a bell etched into her tombstone. She wanted a cat, because we know how much she liked cats. A bell, well, because her students would probably be singing, “ding, dong, the wicked witch was dead!” A few parents took objection to their children being exposed to talking about the upsetting topic of death and then for the topic to be presented in such a frivolous way! Diana was able to be REAL with her students. She respected them and thought of them highly, believing them capable of handling hard truths and difficult concepts, maybe more so than their guardians. That respect she gave students, that ability to challenge students to reach beyond their grasp instead of coddling them is what made her a great teacher of science. But it also made her a great witness of faith. She believed her students could handle the truth and the truth, as the scriptures say, will set you free to really live life. So many students have remarked about how Mrs. Eckert taught me what I needed to get through high school, college, to start an adult life!

    What Mrs. Eckert taught her students, talk of tombstones and decay and all was that death was a necessary part of the cycle of life. She taught them that out of the decomposition of matter, new life was born. The truth of physical science was her entrée into also sharing with the student to not fear death. Death would be the start of new life. She was always the science teacher and the witness to faith. What do we Christians believe? Death is the necessary start of a new way of living! See the paschal mystery revealed in the witness of the natural world. See the truth of faith revealed in the study of the works of the creator.

    That is what we remember, tonight. She died, she sacrificed her life in so many ways, so that others would live more fully. She was a wife, leaving behind one kind of life for the fuller life of matrimony with Ray. She was a mom, sacrificing for her two daughters and granddaughter and they will witness that her gift of self made life so much richer for them. Diana sacrificed for the children she taught, and so many of them will tell you how her sacrifice made their life better. We should see in her sacrifice, her death to self for the sake of others a “proof” to the theory Jesus reveals in his own death and resurrection, those who let go of their life will discover life in abundance. Jesus will be faithful to his promise to her given in baptism.

    In private conversations with the priests and friends, sometimes Mrs. Eckert worried a bit if she would make it to heaven. Diane did not share at the table of the Eucharist with so many of the children she gave her heart to. But, remember what Luke says in the Acts of the Apostles… “God shows no partiality…in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” I am convinced of God’s mercy and bigness of heart, a love as big as the cosmos Diana sought to understand and teach the marvels of to her students, that we can be confident in God’s love and that Diana lives in the resurrected body that cannot be described by science, but is just as real as anything in the created order. Someday, after our night of grief and separation may we discover with her the light of eternity.

The picture is of the display of mementos of Mrs. Eckert placed where the casket normally would be at a funeral in church. There was her teacher’s edition of a textbook, microscope, scale, periodic chart symbol, goggles she insisted students wear, a blow up frog (her students dissected frogs each year) and a Garfield stuffed toy (she really liked cats!).

About frjcrascher

Pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Trenton, IL View all posts by frjcrascher

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